Apparently, ACLU members, board members and outside critics are on the warpath because the organization does what every other non-profit worth its salt does: amassing data about the wealth and capacity of donors and prospective donors (see the New York Times’ ACLU’s Search for Donor Data Stirs Privacy Fears). The rub for the ACLU policy’s critics is that the ACLU is THE organization in the United States when it comes to guarding the privacy rights of our citizens. So why is it purportedly invading those rights in its fundrasing research efforts?
First, I should point out that I’ve been a fundraiser working for non-profits since 1983 (though I am not currently working in the field). I never worked for the ACLU, nor have I ever been a member. But I strongly support its work.
Those who criticize the ACLU in this case profoundly misunderstand the nature, purpose and methods of modern fundraising. The purpose of fundraising is to advance the ability of an organization to pursue its core mission. If there are fundraising organizations which eschew the type of research excoriated here, then they’re doing a great disservice to their mission, their members and those who benefit from the group’s mission.
What types of things do modern fundraising researchers track? They use PUBLIC documents to discover the top executives at public companies and their purchases of company stock. They use real estate records (again public) to determine who’s bought and sold homes and to determine their value. They don’t bug your home. They don’t dig through your garbage. They don’t ask your mother to tattle on you.
As a fundraiser, I sometimes found myself in possession of information about individuals and wondered what they would feel if they knew this. But any halfway sophisticated donor knows and understands why non-profits do this. If you’re a wealthy individual who strongly supports an organization, then you support its fundraising efforts as well. If you wish it success in securing gifts from others, would you deny such a group the knowledge it needs to secure a gift from you? And if you did resent its efforts to learn about you wouldn’t that be hypocritical and self-serving?
As a fundraiser, your credibility (and hence your career) relies on your total discretion. Donors reveal intimate information to you about their personal lives and their wealth. Many want you to know this information. But they also want you to maintain their confidence and use the information discretely and wisely. That’s the job of a good fundraiser. If the ACLU’s fundraisers abused this trust then they deserve the opprobrium of their peers and the groups members.
While I do not know the particulars of this dispute, I trust that these fundraisers have only done their job and done it judiciously and well. Let’s let the ACLU get on with the job it’s supposed to do.